Chicago Public Schools Sue to Try to Force Teachers Back to Work
The Chicago Public Schools system formally sought an injunction against the weeklong teachers strike, imploring a judge to order Chicago Teachers Union members back to work while negotiations continue on a contract. The injunction order claims that the CTU is illegally striking over non-economic issues, in violation of state statutes, and that the strike creates “a clear and present danger to public health and safety.”
Under the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act, passed last year, teachers unions explicitly cannot strike over a variety of issues that have been at play in the current dispute. This includes teacher evaluation policy, recall rules to deal with laid-off teachers after school closings, class size, and the lengths of both the school day and the school year. However, these are not the only issues being deliberated in the contract, though they are prominent. Teacher compensation, both in salary and benefits, has been an issue, one that is clearly marked at the top of the tentative agreement. So to say to a judge, as the school board does in its filing, that the strike violates the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act because it’s being waged over non-strikable issues is to say that the school board can read the minds of the CTU members as to why they have walked off the job. The school board alleges that CTU has made clear in public pronouncements and contract demands that they are striking over non-strikable issues, but that doesn’t preclude also striking over strikable ones, it seems to me.
As for the “clear and present danger to public health and safety,” this is the language in the relevant statute:
If, however, in the opinion of an employer the strike is or has become a clear and present danger to the health or safety of the public, the employer may initiate in the circuit court of the county in which such danger exists an action for relief which may include, but is not limited to, injunction. The court may grant appropriate relief upon the finding that such clear and present danger exists. An unfair practice or other evidence of lack of clean hands by the educational employer is a defense to such action.
The danger to health and public safety could be argued on the grounds of lost access to school services like nurses or subsidized meals (a shocking 84% of all Chicago public school students are eligible for free or low-price meals at school) or special education services. CPS also makes a novel argument about idle hands being the devil’s workshop, noting that violence increases when the city’s children are out of school. But 147 of Chicago’s schools are open for the provision of student meals, among other services, as well as to give students a place to go. This undermines the case of the school board. And given that the school boards’ lack of movement on core bargaining issues can be said to be as much the reason for the strike as the teachers, the “clean hands” defense clearly can come into play.
Ultimately, the time it will take for this litigation to work through the courts and the appeals process will be far longer than the time it will take to settle the strike. Teachers, informed by their delegates, could go ahead and agree to return to work with a vote tomorrow.
“This union is a democratic institution, which values the opportunity for all members to make decisions together. The officers of this union follow the lead of our members,” Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said in a statement on Sunday. “The issues raised in this contract were too important, had consequences too profound for the future of our public education system and for educational fairness for our students, parents and members, for us to simply take a quick vote based on a short discussion. Therefore, a clear majority voted to take this time, and we are unified in this decision.”
The teachers, mindful of the strain of the lack of school on parents, handed out leaflets in their communities today, thanking parents for their support and patience. But I suspect what will weigh on teachers in making their decision is the relative benefit of the contract. Unlike Chicago alderman who signed onto a parking meter privatization deal without reading it, a deal that has grown worse and worse as time goes on, the teachers, being readers and all, would like to read the fine print.